“We are storytelling creatures, and as children we acquire language to tell those stories that we have inside us.”
I began my gratitude experiment in the summer of 2017. I had earned a Ph.D. looking at the concept of wide-awakeness — a philosophical cousin of gratitude — years earlier. I had been practicing gratitude for a while (keeping gratitude lists, practicing yoga, writing thank you notes, and journaling daily). That summer, while working on a political campaign rife with volatility, I chose to double down on gratitude.
Through more than 30 formal (protocol-driven) and countless informal conversations I learned that gratitude is a concept to which everyone can relate. Everyone has a gratitude story. Whether they immediately identify as grateful people, or they tell a gratitude story with another word that they feel more comfortable with (like generosity or kindness or care), gratitude provides connection. No one disagrees with gratitude. No one disputes gratitude. No one closes down a discussion of gratitude. I have found gratitude with friends and strangers. I have found gratitude with old and young. I have found gratitude across demographics, locations, and situations. I have found gratitude behind the fences of prisons and in the stories of Holocaust survivors. I have found gratitude with Air Force Colonels, Cirque Du Soleil performers, Pulitzer Prize winning journalists, professors, yogis, bartenders, and others. When you slow down enough to listen, gratitude is a building block for learning and understanding.
I am reminded of the work of renowned psychologist Jerome Bruner who studied story. Bruner asserted that there are narrative ways of knowing and that learning can happen through stories. Language is developed so that we can tell our stories. That is a powerful thought. If language is developed to tell our stories, and gratitude is a common and important part of our stories, then knowing and sharing our gratitude story in all its fullness and truth can connect and heal ourselves and our world.
Story was a central theme in my conversation with play researcher and professor, Dr. Debora Wisneski. Wisneski describes the connection between story and gratitude this way, “When we are practicing — whether it is a gratitude journal, or reflection of some sort, or can put that label on what you are grateful for — we are telling ourselves a story. It is the story of your life. You are shaping your life.” Calling upon Bruner’s notion of narrative ways of knowing, our stories teach. They help us learn. They shape us. Wisneski continues, “Our stories are a gift to one another. … Any time someone shares a story with me, I am so grateful for that. Anytime someone would want to listen to one of my stories, that is just the biggest gift because it is an acknowledgement that I exist. We matter.” Wisneski ties it all together. We matter. Our stories matter. Our gratitude stories matter.
My conversation with museum educator and professor Dr. Mary Lee Webeck delved into the power of story and gratitude as well. Webeck explains, “I have always believed in my work with children that helping children learn to observe the world around them is just utterly important. … You can talk to children about the most devastating things human beings have done to each other if you also share with them, not in the same moment but in moments, what wonderful things people have done. So, the beauty of the world. It is really important to have that continuum of conversation.” Our gratitude stories can be understood as an essential part of the continuum of conversation. Webeck points out that knowing our stories allows us to understand our interconnectedness as people and complex nature of our common experiences. In that way, our gratitude stories allow us to be present to the wholeness and truth of one another.
My conversation with Lara MacGregor, Founder of Hope Scarves — an international non-profit organization committed to sharing hope with people facing cancer through scarves, stories and research — embodies the heart of why gratitude stories are profoundly important. Hope Scarves began as MacGregor’s (a person living with cancer herself) effort to use story to connect, inspire, comfort, and heal. MacGregor explains, “Every scarf that goes out carries the same simple idea. Each scarf is wrapped with a survivor story, scarf tying instructions about how to wear it, and information about Hope Scarves. It also includes an invitation to wear the scarf as long as you need, send it back to Hope Scarves, and add your story so that we can dry clean it and send it out to another person and carry those two stories.” MacGregor emphasizes the importance of story for Hope Scarves saying, “The scarf is the vehicle for the story.” Through stories, people learn they are not alone. Story sharing provides the context for community, research, and hope.
Spiritual teaching suggests we be grateful to everyone and everything. Philosopher and theologian Brother David Steindl-Rast explains, “Everything is gift. The degree to which we are awake to this truth is a measure of our gratefulness, and gratefulness is a measure of our aliveness.” On the surface, that does not make sense in a world that suffers so much cruelty and pain. In thinking it through, and tying it back to narrative ways of knowing, our gratitude stories draw us closer to one another and to our experiences — to be alive and awake to it all. We are fully present and connected through our gratitude stories. Our gratitude stories open the difficult doors of compassion, forgiveness, surrender, and grace.
Whether by connecting story and play, exploring and curating our collective human story, building hope through research and story, or by grounding gratitude stories in a philosophy and theology of the everyday, these gratitude story examples are love in action. Our gratitude story is the connective tissue of imagination and empathy. Our gratitude story gives gratitude pride of place amidst the important concepts of happiness, compassion, and love. There is perhaps no more important work to do than to understand, listen, and tell gratitude stories. As Bruner understood, the gratitude stories inside us demand no less.
Katie Steedly Curling is a writer, seeker, and storyteller. She has trekked the Abel Tasman, bathed in the healing waters of Tirta Empul, and run a marathon in search of the why, not yet, and what if. As a woman living with Turner syndrome, she believes every day is a miracle. She has published a memoir and an award-winning essay in the Washingtonian. She has explored the intersection of arts and science in writing for leading organizations such as the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the United States Department of Education. She received a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin. She blogs about wide-awakeness at www.katiesteedly.com.